A lot of cars built in 1996 are still on the road, and most of them probably have more than 200,000 miles on the odometer. These cars still run, but they certainly lack the latest in automotive technology, and they could break down on the highway at any minute. The U.S. Air Force has a lot of satellites in orbit from the same era; satellites for weather observation and global positioning that have lasted far longer than originally planned. Like old cars, these aging spacecraft could fail at any minute, but for now they are giving the Air Force some breathing room in its long-range planning.
A recent Space News story described how spacecraft in the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, the Defense Satellite Communication System, GPS and Milstar have been in orbit an average of nearly 18 years – 8 to 10 years longer than the original planned operating life. This is granting the U.S. Air Fore more time to push major constellation architecture changes further out into the future.
An executive from at Lockheed Martin, which manufactured most of the long-lasting Air Force satellites, was quoted in the article that this is “really what will give the Air Force time to think about what happens next.”
However, just like nursing an old car along for a few more thousand miles can be risky, depending on these aging satellites could cause more long-term problems for U.S. military satellite capabilities. Achieving cost-savings while continuing to rely on these legacy systems is commendable, but the Air Force should not feel so complacent that it stalls next-generation approaches, which include smaller, less-complex satellites and hosted payloads.
The Air Force currently has several studies underway looking at its future military space architecture. Planners are focusing on disaggregation of space assets, a concept that favors a large number of smaller, less-complex satellites, hosted payloads and other deployment schemes, rather than global constellations of only a few powerful satellites that has been the standard for decades.
In particular, hosted payload solutions would provide the U.S. government with significant cost savings, while allowing the military to reduce overall risks with regard to program funding, launch delays, and operational issues.
Slowing down on planning for future capabilities just because the old satellites continue to operate adequately puts the U.S. military in a precarious position and we believe could be more costly in the long run. In addition, this strategy completely undercuts the Air Force’s ability to be innovative and take a forward-thinking approach to MILSATCOM, which is vital to the success of U.S. national security efforts.